Philosophy, religion

Did Jesus ever really exist?

One of the things I have noticed is that many people who aren’t religious tend to be slightly dismissive about the idea of Jesus ever existing. It’s a trend you can see in a lot of atheist literature as well, where the conclusion to the question is usually ‘maybe, but certainly not as presented by Christians. Could be a myth.’

And often it’s hard to find a good response to the question for the layman that isn’t very loaded. Type in the question on Google and you’ll likely be met with an abundance of extreme responses.

A seemingly sophisticated article may end up revealing itself as Christian apologetics, concluding with ‘…so, are you ready to welcome the risen Jesus into your heart?’

Or, equally bad, it could be ranting from the kind of atheists who can’t just see religions as wrong, but as REALLY, REALLY stupid (because their ego can only be validated by everyone who disagrees with them being presented as utterly moronic.) Even worse is the conspiracy theorist approach, where Jesus is said to be representative of a Sun God and the twelve disciples are the symbols of the zodiac etc. etc. (Zeitgiest, you absolute piece of shit, I’m looking at you!)

So I thought I’d do a very simple layman response as a really basic introduction to scholarly thought.

Why should you listen to me?

To be honest, you probably shouldn’t. Instead you should pick up a book by Bart Ehrman, but that’s going to be a lot more effort than skimming this blog post. So, as someone who did his dissertation on the historical Jesus, I feel fairly equipped to give a simple layman perspective.

Let’s get to it.

Did Jesus exist?

Most probably.

Shall we leave it there?

You want more? Well…okay.

The overwhelming majority of biblical scholars do think Jesus was a historical person. What exactly we can affirm about his life is up for debate, but the existence of a Jew called Jesus who went on to become the main focus of a new religious movement is largely accepted.

So why exactly do most of them accept a historical Jesus? Put simply, it’s because it’s the easiest explanation of the evidence we have available to us.

When accounting for the origins of Christianity, it is MUCH easier to work from the position there was a historical Jesus than to not.

What is the evidence?

Let’s briefly look over the available evidence for the existence of Jesus:

  • Mentions in the Epistles of Paul (written before the gospels.) The more important references are the incidental ones. For example, in 1 Galatians 1:19 he refers to ‘James, the lord’s brother’ as someone he knows. Given that this is an incidental reference in a letter to a church, it’s reasonably safe to take it at face value.
  • Gospel accounts of his life. Admittedly the gospels certainly aren’t historical texts, but they are attestations to the existence of a Jesus figure written about forty or so years after Jesus’ death.
  • Non-biblical sources:
    – Josephus, a Jewish historian, references Jesus twice. In a shorter passage he mentions James, the brother of Jesus. ‘and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others.’ There is also a longer passage. Many believe the longer passage might have been tampered with by Christian scribes but, nevertheless, it’s largely accepted at least part of it can be ascribed to Josephus.
    – Tacitus, a Roman politician, from whom we learn a little about Jesus’ execution.
    – Other sources include Pliny the Younger. You can read a good breakdown on non-biblical sources here.
  • There seems to be no historical accounts which ever call the existence of Jesus into question. Pagan and Jewish sources would be very disparaging of Jesus but none ever come close to actually questioning whether he existed.

So based on all the evidence above, and the fact we know that a religious movement had sprung up professing belief in a messianic figure they called ‘Jesus’, the simplest explanation is to accept Jesus did in fact exist.

Is there any doubt?

Although most scholars believe in Jesus, there are still a few who question his existence. They represent the ‘Jesus myth’ approach, which suggests, as you might expect, that Jesus is a mythological invention.

This approach is, in my opinion, flawed but understandable. Given that most of what we know about Jesus comes from highly mythologised accounts (namely the gospels), it’s not hard to see why people might ask if so much of what we learn about the man is mythological, why shouldn’t we assume that the man himself was mythological?

And there are some quite adamant defenders of this approach, such as the American Historian Richard Carrier.

The trouble is they still have to account for all the evidence presented above. How would they deal, for example, with Paul’s mention of James, the brother of Jesus? Well, they may say, perhaps there was a sect of ‘brothers’, of which this James was one. Or maybe we’re wrong about the authorship of the letter.

And what about the non-biblical sources like Josephus? Perhaps it was forged, or maybe he was simply referring to the beliefs of others, and not stating something he thought fact.

These answers aren’t particularly satisfying, but they represent the great problem the Jesus myth proponents face. You have to come up with so many different complex responses to the various strands of evidence available that eventually you might as well just concede that accepting a historical Jesus is SO much simpler and, therefore, a better explanation (Occam’s razor, and all that.)

It’s also sometimes banded around that perhaps we shouldn’t take biblical scholarship as seriously as other academic disciplines because it may well have a disproportionate number of Christians emotionally invested in finding a historical Jesus. I always feel uncomfortable when we start getting a bit conspiratorial in our approach, but I think this concern may have some slight legitimacy. Whilst I don’t have stats to back it up, I do wonder if atheists, on the whole, might find it harder to get relevant university positions than someone with a faith. No empirical evidence for that, by the way, just a thought.

But even so, there are still two good responses to this:

  • The case for the historical Jesus is not an argument from authority alone. Whilst I have argued that the majority of scholars believe in the historical Jesus, even if they all turned out to be biased in their approach, you’d still have to explain the evidence presented.
  • Some of the most vocal and respected critics of the Jesus myth approach are atheists (such as Bart Ehrman and the late Maurice Casey.) Equally, even a lot of Christian interpretations are hardly your typical devotional accounts of Jesus’ life. John Dominic Crossan, for example, who identifies as a Christian, doesn’t believe Jesus performed miracles, nor that he rose again or even intended to die for mankind’s sin. In fact, at one point he suggested that Jesus’ body was eaten by dogs. So if Christian interpretations of Jesus’ life can end up being this ‘blasphemous’, I think it gives us reasonable hope that biblical scholarship is not one big exercise in confirmation bias (even if we do need to be aware it may be a factor.)

Conclusion

The above may have been a skin deep layman analysis of the case for Jesus’ existence, but hopefully it interested you enough to read further into these issues.

If we can confirm with some confidence that Jesus existed, you may wonder what we can confirm about his actual life. Unfortunately this is where things get tricky, but a lot of scholars feel comfortable in saying he was a Galilean Jew, baptised by John the Baptist, called disciples, had an incident at the temple and was crucified. We can also be reasonably confident that the disciples continued on with his message, most likely with the belief that, in some way, Jesus had risen again. Many of the disciples were then persecuted for these beliefs.

There are a whole bunch of weird and wonderful interpretations of Jesus’ life and message though, so I encourage you to go and read some.

Now, are you ready to accept the risen Jesus into your heart?…only joking!

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Philosophy, religion

Why Young Earth Creationists aren’t QUITE as stupid as you think

Imagine believing that the world is less than 10,000 years old and that God created us as described in the Genesis account.

Crazy as it may seem, and despite science showing us that the Earth is around 4.5 billion years old, as recently as 2014 it was a view held by nearly half of Americans.

A 2017 poll has the figure at a new low, but it’s still believed by 38% of Americans.

This got me thinking. After Trump there have been a whole bunch of think pieces desperately trying to explain why people voted for such a ludicrous candidate, and explanations have varied from economic anxiety to the idea that white people have faced discrimination as a result of political correctness (which is, of course, nonsense.)

But given that, up until recently at least, nearly half of Americans believed in Young Earth Creationism, where were all the think pieces defending them against the ‘intellectual elite’?

So, as someone who has escaped the clutches of the intellectual black hole that is creationism, I thought now was a good time to look at why exactly such a mad view is held by so many.

 

It all begins with Genesis

To those who don’t come from a Christian upbringing (and to many who do), it seems fairly obvious that the Genesis account is mythological in nature. By the time you come to the talking snake it’s a given we’re not dealing with something any of the writers ever considered history.

But, what if you believe the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God? How do you make sense of the opening chapters of Genesis?

The answer for more progressive, less-fundamentalist Christians has been to largely view Genesis as metaphorical or allegorical. Perhaps, some may say, the ‘days’ of creation are actually millions of years. Or, perhaps, this is not history at all, but instead a poetic account which captures some spiritual truths about creation, but not any scientific ones.

To the Young Earth Creationist though, these answers are unsatisfactory. Not necessarily because a literal interpretation is always preferable, but for a more sophisticated reason – to relegate the Genesis creation account to divine myth is to rob it of everything it has to say.

Let’s back up for a second. What exactly are the first few chapters of Genesis trying to convey? If it was just that God created, that’s done within the first verse –  ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ – no-more needs to be said. But that’s clearly not all the early chapters are saying.

Whilst Genesis 1-3 might be addressing many questions, the most explicit one is not ‘How did God create us?’ but ‘If God created us, why is there suffering?’ The answer provided by Genesis is it’s because of man’s disobedience. This is vital to understanding the creationist worldview.

The Genesis account paints the picture of a perfect creation free from death, where both animals and humans are entirely vegetarian (Genesis 1:29-30). It is not until Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, against God’s explicit command, that death and suffering enter the world.

Evolution is obviously hugely problematic to this reading of Genesis because it entails millions of years of death and suffering occurring long before humanity ever existed. In fact, by the time humanity came about nearly all of the species that had ever existed were extinct.

No-matter how allegorical or metaphorical you make Genesis, by accepting evolution you are disagreeing with its primary thesis, namely that God made the world good and sin is responsible for all the bad. In this way it’s weirdly the creationists, not the progressives, who have the ‘deeper understanding’ of what Genesis is saying. Prominent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins says a similar thing, that there’s almost something to be respected in creationists recognising the fundamental tension between their worldview and the image of the world evolution presents, in contrast to the moderates who are largely blind to it.

And so there are really three options. The first is, as discussed, to say there is divine truth in Genesis but it’s allegorical/metaphorical and doesn’t contradict science. Yet as we’ve seen, it’s not entirely clear what ‘truth’ Genesis has left when robbed of its main point.

The second option (and the most rational) is to simply see the Genesis account as one creation myth among many. This doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can learn from it. After all, I don’t believe in the Greek myths but they are fundamentally fascinating and insightful. It simply means that there is no ‘divine truth’, just human contemplation.

However, Young Earth Creationists choose the third option. They insist the Bible is the word of God, recognise it’s incompatible with the scientific consensus, and so reject the scientific consensus. After all, scientists can be wrong but God can’t be, right? I want to argue this reasoning, more so than scientific illiteracy, is the place where creationists take a wrong turn down a road that’s very hard to backtrack on. But first, let’s look at how creationists make sense of the facts.

 

What do they do with all those fossils?

The reason most people assume creationists are, well, idiots, is because it seems obvious the facts don’t support their theory. Of course the world isn’t 10,000 years old, just look at the fossil record, explain the dating methods etc.

The cliché understanding of a creationist is someone who simply doesn’t know much about these fossils or who says something stupid like ‘the devil put them there to mislead us.’ But actually, this rather underestimates the logical misdirection creationists use (and are trapped in!) to support their views.

So, imagine you meet a creationist and you’re feeling pretty confident you can put this fool in his place:

You: If the Earth is only 6,000 years old, how do you explain all the fossils?

Creationist: Easy, there was a global flood (Geneis 6 – 9) which would provide perfect conditions to preserve the fossils.

You: OK…but how do you explain the pattern of fossils? We don’t see humans buried below trilobites.

Creationist: Isn’t it obvious? In a flood, of course the most intelligent creatures are going to last the longest. The sea creatures will be buried first, as we see in the fossil record, but intelligent creatures like apes and humans can last longer. Humans were probably clinging on to floating trees and things like that.

You: But…well, we know the Earth isn’t really young. Just look at the Grand Canyon, that took millions of years to form.

Creationist: Wrong again! You believe it took millions of years to form because you subscribe to uniformitarianism, but a sudden catastrophic flood could create such a feature in no time at all.

I could go on, but you should begin to see how the creationist in this discussion isn’t being overwhelmed by ‘facts’. If you’re not particularly scientific literate, and therefore don’t have a detailed understanding of the geological formation of the Grand Canyon, it can be hard to argue with. It’s obvious there is a flaw in the logic, but far harder to articulate precisely what it is.

The best breakdown I’ve come across is in a book I reference quite often, ‘Believing Bullshit’ by Stephen Law. He explains that what creationists engage in is ‘making the facts fit.’ A creationist simply looks at the evidence in front of him and absorbs it into his worldview. He makes the facts fit whatever he already believes. The argument that the devil put the fossils there to deceive us is an example of such reasoning in an obvious form. Scientists, however, simply speaking, let the evidence speak for itself, allowing them to form a hypothesis which they can then test.

Unfortunately the two approaches can look pretty similar, and to the non-critical mind ‘making the facts fit’ is indistinguishable from the scientific method. One of the big differences is the ability of the approach to be falsified. In the ‘making the facts fit’ approach, nothing can prove it wrong. Anything that comes along will simply be explained away. On the other hand, the Theory of Evolution is pretty easy to falsify. All it would take would be, say, a human fossil in one of the earliest geological stratas. The fact that it could easily be disproved and yet hasn’t been makes it a far stronger explanation.

So, here’s my point, scientific illiteracy probably isn’t the main problem here. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure creationists are, on average, any more scientifically illiterate than the rest of the population. Of course if we all became scientists then creationism would probably die a quick death (for example, when I learned about dessication cracks in multiple layers of rock in A Level Geology, it was pretty clear to me that the flood model couldn’t possibly account for that.) But actually, it would be best to target the logic that gets creationists to the point of trying to argue for such a position in the first place. Unfortunately, our society is often on board with such logic…

 

What leads someone to become a creationist?

The most fundamental flaw in creationist logic is assuming that the Bible is the word of God in the first place. It’s a belief held by many Christians of all different persuasions, but when you think about it, it’s a ludicrous starting place. How on Earth do you come to the conclusion that a selection of texts, most the authors unknown, is the word of God? How do you even begin to justify that position? I could write a whole blog on that alone, but I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer.

Yet our society totally permits that logic, creating an artificial barrier between faith and reason. In matters of religion and spirituality, blind faith is positively encouraged (a phenomenon I have argued is extremely stupid here.) If we don’t hold religion to a standard of proof, then of course big claims like ‘this book is the word of God’ will go unchallenged.

We could equally understand creationism by seeing it as a conspiracy theory. I’ve argued at some length how I hate conspiracy theories here, and creationism bears many of the familiar hallmarks. Not just the logical sleight of hand discussed earlier, but also in the way they understand the scientific community. After all, how can a creationist make sense of nearly every scientist accepting evolution and an old Earth? Their reply is that there must be a ‘secular’ or ‘atheist’ agenda to keep biblical explanations out of scientific journals. This is, of course, nonsense. The reason they are rejected is because either the science is poor, or it is fairly assumed that starting with the assumption a collection of texts is divinely inspired is not good practice. Unfortunately a defining trait of fundamentalists is the belief that their religion is under attack, so that line of thinking lends itself to the conspiracy approach.

Yet our society fosters an environment where this line of paranoid logic can grow. We’re increasingly rejecting experts and encouraged to have our own opinions. Somewhere along the line we replaced ‘everyone is entitled to an opinion’ to ‘everyone’s opinion is equally valid.’ They are two very different things. Scientific consensus matters, particularly when most of us haven’t got the time, let alone the capacity, to make informed conclusions for ourselves. We need to start listening to experts again and recognise most of our opinions for what they are – uninformed, ignorant nonsense.

Putting all this together – the belief in the divine word of God, the ‘it fits’ line of reasoning and the conspiratorial mindset – Young Earth Creationism becomes an intellectual prison from which it’s incredibly difficult to escape. It’s a much more sophisticated and problematic trap than the ‘God done it’ simpletons we often imagine.

 

It’s OUR fault

So, in a way, I have some sympathy for Young Earth Creationists. When you look at their beliefs, they differ in degree but not in type to a whole bunch of nonsense a lot of our society believes. And so, creationism is mocked by the same culture that cultivates its existence. I wonder how many astrologers, spiritualists and wholistic healers have laughed at creationist beliefs? How many conspiracy theorists and religious inerrantists have sniggered at their stupidity?

I’m not making the case for creationists here, far from it. I simply want to highlight that their beliefs are probably not as stupidly founded as you might believe, and rely on logic that you are, statistically speaking, likely to be using to support some of your own views.

Hopefully by reflecting on how these logical fallacies are employed to support a position most consider untenable, it will both encourage us to have a degree of sympathy for the creationists and prompt us to challenge the way we use these fallacies ourselves in the future.

 

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Philosophy, Politics

A few brief thoughts on the recent terrorist atrocities

It’s been an awful few months for our country. Men, women and children have lost their lives. The number of victims might be counted, but the pain of the families who lost someone will never be quantifiable.

I was in two minds whether to write anything on this at all – in the face of such tragedy, words can seem so glib and, really, what is there left to say? What can be said at all? But I’ve decided, for my own catharsis and for the very few readers who find their way to this tiny pocket of the internet, I’m going to share some brief thoughts.

We hear a lot that ‘the terrorists won’t win’. And, if you believe that these terrorists have any sort of long-term political goals, that’s probably right. Western Democracy is never going to curtail to the whims of an oppressive death cult.

Some may say, however, that the terrorists’ goals aren’t even that sophisticated – their intentions are merely to cause harm, destroy lives and stir up fear. And in that way, I guess, they kind of can win…but only because their goals are so pathetic.

The truth is, if you are determined to go through with it, devastating lives is easy. Most of us have access to a car or a kitchen knife. If we so choose, any one of us could go out there and cause unthinkable pain. Such a cowardly act only works, however, by exploiting the trust of our civilisation. We are a free country, we have entered into a social contract to trust each other – our streets aren’t designed to stop us causing harm because basic human respect for life is assumed. That’s how a free society works. Only a coward would abuse that trust and take innocent lives. Destruction is easy, pathetic and weak.

What is difficult, and what these terrorists have absolutely no capacity to do, is to build…and just look at what we’ve built. We have a welfare state to protect the poor and vulnerable in our society. We have a National Health Service to look after the sick, regardless of wealth. We are a country made up of different ethnicities, cultures, and religions. What’s more, we don’t merely tolerate these differences, we celebrate them as one of the things that make us great. And it’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s hard to show love. Sometimes we disagree about how best to do it.

But, as a country, we have public servants who go beyond the call of duty to protect and heal us. We’ve produced policeman, paramedics and civilians who, in the face of unspeakable danger, risk (and, in some cases, lose) their own lives trying to save others. Not, it must be said, for any gain or reward, but simply because they couldn’t bear to stand by and watch another human suffer. It is through the actions of these people that we catch a glimpse of the divine.

On Sunday night, Manchester held a concert to celebrate unity and love, in memory of those who had lost their lives. This concert was set-up by a 23 year old pop star, herself deeply affected by these events, who did what little she could to help a city and a nation heal. This concert raised over two million pounds, as ordinary people volunteered their money to help others in need. And what was so cathartic about the concert, beyond just the outpouring of love, was to see people having fun, caught up in the music. There’s a reason these terrorists have no regard for art and music – it’s because they’re acts of creation, and all a terrorist can do is destroy. Creativity itself becomes glorious defiance. Whereas terrorism is an act of deep jealously and emptiness, and in that small way I almost pity them.

It’s important to be critical of ourselves. To create a just society is so much harder than causing destruction. It’s vital to recognise our flaws, our hypocrisies and our deep, dark moral failings. But it’s equally important to, once in a while, take a look at just how far we’ve come. Just look at what we’ve built. We’re protectors of each other. We are creators. We are artists. We are free. That’s how we win.

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Philosophy, Politics

“Say ‘Strong and Stable’ again. I dare you, I double dare you motherf**ker”

One of the things that has struck me most about politics of late is the continued reliance on repeated phrases (perhaps a rather ironic statement for a blog using Pulp Fiction as the inspiration for its title).

Project fear

Strong and stable

He’s unelectable

For the many, not the few

Britain must live within its means

The system is rigged for the rich

Brexit means Brexit

Chances are everything I’ve quoted above will be familiar to you. Some may find them irritating but I think they’re significantly more problematic than mere irritation. Not only do they remove all nuance from a discussion but, at worst, I think they highlight a contempt for the electorate and, even more shockingly, they actually work (in all the wrong ways)!

The destruction of nuance

One of the most interesting parts of the George Orwell classic ‘Nineteen Eight-Four’ is the refining of the existing language by The Party into a new language – ‘newspeak’. Doing this was to, among other things, make nuance and opposition to The Party’s ideology linguistically impossible. Strange as it may seem, I do think there are lessons to be learned from this, applicable today.

Of course it would be a paranoid overstatement to suggest that our politicians are intentionally trying to enforce a new, ideologically motivated language on us but our reliance on repeated shorthand really can be damaging to intelligent discussion. These phrases may well begin as a catchy hook or an expedient way of getting the point across, but when overused they descend into vapid responses.

For example, we all remember ‘Project Fear’ as a much trotted out rebuttal to pretty much any claim that leaving the EU could be damaging. It essentially was meant to imply that the claim was scaremongering and intended to frighten us into voting remain. Even when expressed in full, it hardly seems the most direct response to any particular argument made against leaving the EU, but by dumbing down the response to a mere two words, ‘Project Fear’, it became an unwarranted defeater – shutting down the real debate straight away.

Equally overused and repeated phrases can cause us to think of complicated ideas simplistically. One that jumps out at me is the often repeated phrase ‘we need to balance the books’ or ‘Britain must live within its means.’ It’s obvious what this phrase is trying to convey – at a time of economic hardship we can’t be spending money frivolously. It’s also the logic used to support austerity and the cutting of public funding.

I’m no economist, I frankly have no idea how one goes about getting a country out of debt, but it seems clear to me that talking about the country’s deficit as if it’s a household budget is grotesque oversimplification. In a great article on austerity from 2015, Paul Krugman makes this point:

‘When John Boehner, the Republican leader, opposed US stimulus plans on the grounds that “American families are tightening their belt, but they don’t see government tightening its belt,” economists cringed at the stupidity. But within a few months the very same line was showing up in Barack Obama’s speeches, because his speechwriters found that it resonated with audiences.’

Whilst speaking of national debt as if it’s a household budget might be relatable and understandable, it actually conveys very little of the complexity of global economics and risks doing more harm than good. I don’t pretend to know whether austerity actually works, but it feels wrong to justify it by using a false analogy for the sake of simplicity.

We have to remember language really does matter, in fact one could argue that a lot of philosophy and critical thinking is really just trying to understand and agree on definitions. When you remove pretty much everything from a sentence so it’s just a trite soundbite, it becomes almost impossible to really dissect the point that’s being made – it’s simply a sentiment expressed in an inappropriately shortened away.

And it’s in this way I think there’s a genuine comparison with ‘Newspeak’ which was created to convey large sentiments in completely inflexible language – the speaker loses the capacity to speak with nuance and therefore the ability to reflect critically. In our case, politicians willfully choose to use such wording and voluntarily become linguistically bankrupt.

Utter contempt

This brings us to our next question; why do politicians and the media use such language? Well, it’s because they believe it’ll work.

Frankly, Theresa May’s constant reliance on repeating the words ‘strong and stable’ feels to me like contempt for the electorate – she really must think we’re stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I know political parties need a hook and have an image they want to portray, but they really have gone beyond that this election, repeating the phrase ad nauseam with the subtlety of a Michael Bay movie.

And let’s be honest, that mantra really isn’t an accurate reflection of May’s leadership so far. At best it’s a projection of what the Conservatives want to achieve, at worst it’s an overcompensation because far from being ‘strong and stable’, the complete opposite is true. Only today she made her ninth u-turn, this time on a manifesto policy that is only four days old, prompting Michael Crick to ask if Mrs May was in fact ‘weak and wobbly’. Mix that with the fact that her recent dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker reportedly left him ’10 times more sceptical’ about Brexit, and it’s quite clear that strong and stable is good PR, but far from reality.

But it actually works!

Unfortunately politicians and the media rely on these nonsense shorthands because they do actually seem to work, at least for some of the electorate. Anecdotal as it may be, I’ve seen (and spoken with) many people who say they’ll be voting Theresa May, and who can’t help but use either the words ‘strong’ or ‘stable’ when explaining why. These brain-worm of words get into our heads and, when heard enough times, are hard to shake  – I’m sure a psychologist could write an interesting piece as to why.

Another example of repeated phraseology that works was the constant reporting of the media that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. Now look, I don’t like conspiracy theories and I think reports of ‘media bias’ can be a little simplistic – often the media is simply giving the readership/viewers what they want. Neither am I a full blooded Corbynite – I’m generally favourable to him but I’ve yet to be convinced he’s the saviour of the country some of the left think he is.

But it seems undeniable to me that even if it were the case that Corbyn was unelectable from the moment he took leadership of the Labour party (a claim it would be hard to empirically show), the constant repetition of ‘Corbyn is unelectable’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Best not vote Corbyn because he’s unelectable…I think we can all see the flaw in that logic!

What to do

No party is immune to using annoying soundbites or repeated phraseology in a way that hinders real political and intellectual discourse.

We as voters should always, however, be on the lookout for such things.

My own approach – the minute I hear a phrase repeated profusely, a soundbite that won’t go away or an idea that everyone simply seems to accept, I refuse it all together on those terms. Instead, build up what is trying to be conveyed using proper language, then critically examine that claim against the available evidence.

Let’s not let slogans, soundbites and phraseology dumb down the level of debate in this country. We deserve better.

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Philosophy, religion

Fumblings in the dark (or the appropriate response to the limitation of human reason)

Imagine, if you will, waking up in a pitch black dark room. You don’t know where you are or how you got there, nor can you see what’s in the room because of the darkness. You fumble anxiously for your phone. You need a light source. Finally you hold the phone up, but the light is weak, barely illuminating what’s in front. You have absolutely no idea where the room ends.

Here’s a question for you; what’s at the end of the room? Presumably you’ll think the answer’s obvious – ‘I have absolutely no idea.’

Now, imagine the same scenario but this time you wake up with your friend, Doris (yes, Doris…it’s my thought experiment and I’m allowed to have anachronistic names.)
“Don’t worry,” she says, noticing your heavy breathing. “It’s quite alright.”
“How can you be sure?” you ask.
“At the end of this room is a little lamp and, sitting right next to it, a really cute little kitten. You’ll love it.”
You breathe a sigh of relief.
“Oh, thank goodness. How do you know all that?”
“I just do,” shrugs Doris.
Your body begins to go cold as the hope slowly drains.
“What do you mean ‘you just do’?”
“I have faith,” Doris replies.
“But you’ve got no evidence,” you say, staring into the dark abyss.
“No,” laughs Doris, “that’s why it’s called faith, silly.”
You shake your head, unable to believe what you’re hearing.
“Besides,” she continues, “do you have any reason to think there isn’t a really cute kitten at the end of the room?”

In this scenario, do you think Doris is being sensible in her assertion? Let’s come back to this later.

 

The limitations of reason

“I know one thing; that I know nothing”, the famous Socratic paradox goes. Indeed if there’s one thing we can be reasonably sure of, it’s that we know very little. And I’m not even talking about the big questions, think of all the many known facts you have no knowledge of. Think of everything in biology, chemistry, physics, geology, history, geography, astronomy etc. that you don’t know (of course most of the things you don’t know, you won’t know you don’t know.)

It’s likely that each of us, as individuals, know considerably less than even 1% of everything that IS known. Isn’t that humbling? Sometimes we’re so used to our own bubble that we forget how DEEPLY ignorant we really are as individuals. It’s for this reason that I believe so strongly in the necessity of experts when it comes to beginning to make sense of the world, even if appealing to authority is hardly foolproof. In a world of growing egos, ever more elaborate conspiracy theories and stupid world leaders, the collective good that comes from trusting people specialising in a field and becoming informed experts really is at threat.

But, deeper still, there are questions to which reason simply doesn’t seem to offer an answer. Is there a God? What happens when we die? Does life have a purpose? These ideas ask questions beyond the physical and are, perhaps by necessity, outside the capacity of either the scientific method or human reason (unless you’re clinging onto the ontological argument for dear life, but I’m guessing most of you aren’t.)

It’s absolutely necessary that we accept this limitation – there is no point in pretending otherwise. In this way we are like that person trapped in the darkened room unable to see what’s at the end (and of course, we don’t have the liberty of being able to walk up and take a look for ourselves.) But so few of us actually act in this way – instead will fill this gap of knowledge with gods and demons, ghosts and spirits, meaning and purpose. We ‘do a Doris’, so to speak.

 

Is this a responsible reaction to the limitations of human reason?

Regardless of whatever motivates us to fill these gaps, the question becomes is it responsible to do so? In the case of Doris and her cute cat, do you think she is right to believe in the moggy at the end of the room? Presumably not, because there is absolutely no reason to think there is a kitten there.

And what of Doris’ reply, that there is no evidence to the contrary? Well that doesn’t seem satisfying either, you could come up with just about any theory (there’s an alien, an old man, a rocking horse, a T-Rex etc.) and the same would still be true. As is widely agreed, the burden of proof is always on the person making the claim, batty old Doris in this case. If Doris can’t justify her belief in the cat then she can’t expect others to believe her.

It’s because this all seems so obvious to me, that I find it hard to understand why rationalists and those who ask for evidence are so often portrayed as arrogant. There’s a definite imagining of the stuffy-old sceptic who thinks he knows everything. In fact I watched The Conjuring 2 recently (which I rather enjoyed, even if it has cost me a few hours sleep) and they portray the academics who don’t believe in hauntings as closed minded fools who arrogantly refuse to look beyond their noses. But this is all very misleading.

A true sceptic or rationalist is not assuming they know everything at all, quite the opposite in fact. They are simply asking for evidence of these claims in much the same way you would ask of evidence from dear old Doris. In fact if Doris is really convinced of her claims and judges you for not believing them, it is actually Doris who is extremely arrogant, as she is making the claim that she knows something extraordinary that nobody else has been able to prove. It’s her making the big claims about what’s at the end of the room who is presumptuous, not the person simply asking for some proof.

And so, it seems to me, in the face of the limitations of human reason, the answer is not just to plump for whatever belief system you fancy, but to stop and humbly acknowledge we simply don’t know. What’s at the end of the room? I don’t know.

Now, that’s not to say that everybody’s view is suddenly equal. In the case of Doris, her prediction is very specific and therefore more likely to be wrong. Just in the way that saying there’s another living being in this room gives greater probability to her claim than specifically insisting it’s a cat, the same is also true when talking of a God –‘ there may be a conscious designer of the universe’ is more probable than talking about a specific God who has a problem with homosexuality or shellfish (of course in both cases you’d still need a reason to make any sort of claim like this at all.)

It’s also possible that certain claims become less likely in virtue of the absence of evidence. When Doris states there’s a kitten at the end of the room, it would eventually cause us to doubt her further if we never hear a ‘meow’ (or any sound at all.) Equally, whilst we can never say for certain that psychic powers don’t exist, the fact that no scientifically controlled experiment has ever produced evidence of psychic powers should cause us some suspicion. Absence of evidence might not be evidence of absence, but we should be alarmed when evidence we may expect to see isn’t there.

But, in many ways, they are nuances for a greater discussion. The simple point at this moment is the mature response to the limitation of human reason is not making something up, as Doris does, but instead remaining absolutely open to any possibility if the evidence presents itself. And, if the question is beyond the capacity of human reason, simply remaining agnostic altogether.

 

What about faith?

I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been having an interesting discussion with someone about their beliefs and suddenly it becomes a dead-end. Why? Well I’m fascinated by what people believe (that’s part of the reason I did Philosophy and Theology as a degree) but I’m even more interested in why they believe it, I think that’s the much meatier part of the discussion.

Yet, when someone evokes ‘faith’ as an answer it stops the conversation dead. In fact, often it’s said with a satisfied smile, as if faith is a virtue I haven’t quite ascended to yet. But in truth, if your definition of faith is ‘believing something for no reason’, that’s not virtuous, that’s ridiculous. Sorry, but it’s true. Faith, when defined in such a way, is just a crutch to hold onto beliefs that you know rationally you should do away with.

It’s not surprising we fall into this trap of using faith in such a way. For some time ‘faith’ has been defined as ‘believing without reason’ by certain religious groups and people mistake it for a supporting tenet of organised religion (ancient and, therefore, wise.) But, in actual fact, I remain far from convinced that this definition of faith is something the ancients would particularly recognise. It’s a big topic for another day, but I can’t help but doubt that the use of the word in an ancient world, pre-enlightenment and the scientific method, would mean the same thing as it does today post those movements.

Even a brief glance at the use of the word in the Abrahamic religions shows it unlikely was used to denote blindly believing something, in fact it seems largely about ‘faith in God’, not ‘faith in God’s existence.’ That’s a clear distinction. If I said I have faith in my parents, for example, you would presume I’m talking about trusting their ability to deliver, not blind belief in their existence. Throughout most the Hebrew Scriptures it’s taken for granted that God exists, so faith is almost always about trusting in his word as opposed to trusting in his existence.

And indeed, in the New Testament, 1 Peter 3:15 says ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’. Presumably this indicates some kind of rational persuasion, not an insistence on blind acceptance.

I do plan to one day look at this issue of faith in MUCH more depth, but a brief skimming of the subject indicates that calling on ‘faith’ to defend belief without reason is not some virtuous religious tradition but likely a reasonably modern definition of the word, re-defined for a post-enlightenment age where the existence of God is substantially called into question.

The true definition of ‘faith’ throughout religious traditions is likely going to be a lot richer and a lot more beautiful than the tacky gift shop version that is often bandied around today.

 

Why does this matter?

When all is said and done, you may wonder why any of this matters.

Well, I think we’re encouraged today to have opinions on things, and pushed not to ‘sit on the fence’ (which, I think, is often a perfectly fine place to be.) Plus there’s a natural human inclination to attribute meaning and a narrative to our existence. But to begin to adequately form a worldview, we need to make sure the very building blocks on which it’s formed is sound, yet seldom do we invest time analysing them.

And this is not a conclusion by the way, it’s very much just a beginning. You might think, based on this post, that I’m totally agnostic, but that’s not strictly true, I actually have theistic leanings. But it’s so important to make clear (to ourselves, if no-one else) our attitude to reason, to its limitations and our approach to evidence, before we can even begin to start making a positive case for any particular worldview.

So in conclusion…we need to be humble inquisitors, not a Doris.

 

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Philosophy, religion

21 questions I would ask the Christian God

Imagine you could ask God anything…what would it be?

Here are my 21 questions I would ask the Christian God*:

  • Why does bad food taste so good? Why is chocolate so irresistible, whereas vegetables taste bland? If you made a carrot taste of chocolate, and chocolate taste of carrot, I’d be fit as a fiddle. Also, why does the nicest food in the world have to come from suffering dead animals and also give us cancer?
  • Why make your existence so ambiguous? If your aim is to get people to believe in you, just drop in and say ‘hey’ once in a while. Leaving the world to look exactly as it would if there were no God is a risky game.
  • Why are so many of your followers absolute bellends?
  • Do you actually have a problem with homosexuality? If so, isn’t it a bit creepy you care so much about what people do with their genitals? If you don’t have an issue with it, why not make that clear in the Bible instead of leaving ambiguous passages that would be used to oppress minorities for thousands of years? Same question for women and slavery.
  • Why have you allowed four Transformers movies to be made? You’re meant to be a loving God.
  • If we have freewill, and we act badly, isn’t that, well…a design flaw? Don’t want to point fingers or anything…
  • What’s the deal with the devil? Like…is he real? If so, it’s kind of super irresponsible to give him the kind of free reign he has. If he’s just a character, he’s a bland villain. What’s his motivation? To try and fight an all powerful God and be a general dick? I just don’t believe it, you know. Maybe a writers class would help…
  • On a similar note, if a thick person raised in a religious family never questions anything, he goes to Heaven, but if a smart person can’t find sufficient reason to believe, they go to Hell? Does that make being smart a hindrance and being dumb an advantage? Isn’t that a bit stupid?
  • Do you know what I’m going to pray before I pray it? If so, is there any point in me praying? Also, why don’t you just do good things without us asking? When you have the power to stop terrible things happening but don’t, that’s kind of being a dick. Like, watch Spiderman, that explains the whole ‘power and responsibility’ thing.
  • Speaking of which – spiders…what the actual fuck were you thinking?
  • Why evolution? That’s a really slow and cruel way to get to the point we’re at. More than 99% of species that ever existed are now extinct. Why not just make us as we are now and save a few billion years? Also, doesn’t evolution totally retcon Genesis?
  • Similar point, why make animals that rely on eating each other? Why aren’t we all made vegetarian? If animals have to eat each other, why make them conscious of their pain?
  • Have you ever thought about issuing a statement about all those things ‘done in your name’? Good PR I would have thought.
  • Will there ever be a sequel to the Bible? Sequels are all the rage these days. Don’t worry, it doesn’t even have to be as good…just needs to be bigger. Maybe you could build up to a Religious Cinematic Universe and have Jesus team up with other religious figures (not naming names because…frightened) to fight off immorality, or fig trees.
  • The Book of Revelation…what’s that all about? Can deities get high?
  • Why didn’t you send Jesus in a time when there were video cameras as opposed to a time when we have to trust written sources? That way intellectually challenged half-wits wouldn’t be able to deny there was at least ‘a Jesus’ (well, some of the loons might say it was holograms or staged or something, but you can’t convince everyone.)
  • Also, Jesus kind of thought the world was ending soon…he did, right? I’m not judging, we all make mistakes.
  • Do you actually care when privileged people in the West pray for trivial things? We would totally understand if you wanted to spend time helping out impoverished nations and fighting infant mortality instead. I imagine it’s like having one child asking for a loan for a lamborghini whilst you’re caring for his terminally ill brother!
  • Do you like being praised? People constantly telling you how great you are (and going pretty crazy whilst they’re at it) could get awkward, I imagine.
  • Bourbon or custard cream?

 

What questions would you ask God?

*These are, of course, tongue-in-cheek. I’m full aware that on coming face-to-face with an all-powerful being I would be awe inspired and probably shitting it. 

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Philosophy, religion

Why conspiracy theories are usually nonsense

The older I get and the more thought I give the world, the more I realise conspiracy theories really irk me. Not because of the content, per se, but rather in the thought processes that generate belief in conspiracy theories. In fact, I think many conspiracy theories exhibit the absolute WORST in human reasoning (namely anti-intellectualism, disinterest in evidence, over-simplification and arrogance.)

Let me begin, however, by adding a caveat. A belief in a conspiracy isn’t stupid in virtue of itself, there may very well be good reasons to believe that a conspiracy has taken place. Heck, we can point to numerous examples throughout history whereby things we would call a ‘conspiracy theory’ have proven to be exactly as conspiratorial in nature as could possibly be feared.

No, what I’m talking about are the many beliefs that fall under the term ‘conspiracy theory’ that are entirely without merit. The beliefs where the ‘evidence is out there’ if you only ‘wake up and open your eyes’ – when conspiracy theorists say this, they seldom mean a peer-reviewed journal!

So let’s look, step-by-step, at the dangers of conspiracy theories and why they represent the absolute nadir in human critical thinking.

Firstly, conspiracy theories encourage anti-intellectualism. After the election of a president who doesn’t believe in global warming and who thinks women should be punished for having an abortion, now more than ever we have to fight against a sinister growing voice that encourages us to disregard experts and simply go with our gut. Conspiracy theories almost always rely on the complete disregard of the views of celebrated professionals in a field (someone who has worked hard and earned the respect of their peers) under the pretence that they’re part of the cover-up. Anti-vaxxers don’t trust medical health experts, global warming deniers don’t trust scientists, Jesus myth propagators ignore leading historical scholars etc.

And what is the voice of experts replaced with? Crappy, poorly researched websites and hours of mind-numbing YouTube videos by someone who is unlikely even to have a degree in the subject they are talking about (let alone be respected by experts in the field.) Under the guise of ‘free-thought’ conspiracy theorists open themselves up to a wealth of information which has had no validation from someone with authority on the matter, and the theorist themselves are almost always going to be unqualified to truly discern the reality from the bullshit.

Secondly, conspiracy theories are rarely supported by compelling evidence. I suspect this is where most contention will come in because for someone engrossed in the world of conspiracies and who consumes the conspiracy media, it probably looks like there is an abundance of evidence. Problematically, however, this evidence is rarely peer-reviewed or widely accepted by those in the know. Occasionally a professor in botany might come out as an anti-vaxxer and, despite 99% of scientists disagreeing, the theorists all of a sudden become interested in experts (whilst carefully ignoring the broad scientific consensus). However, in such a situation the evidence seems to be merely a nice extra and expedient as opposed to vital.

And, annoyingly, conspiracy theories are almost always impossible to prove wrong – they tend to just consume evidence. For example, there might be a wealth of evidence that global warming is taking place, but that can simply be hand-waved by ‘that’s what they WANT you to think.’ In Stephen Law’s excellent book ‘Believing Bullshit’, he explains how being an unfalsifiable belief is not a strength using the example of creationism and evolution. Creationism is essentially unfalsifiable because creationists always amend their beliefs to fit the evidence (which is distinctly different from amending their beliefs FOLLOWING the evidence.) Evolution could be proved wrong, however, simply by finding human remains in the wrong geological strata. The fact that no such thing has been found is a strength of the Theory Of Evolution, not a weakness. After all, I could say there’s an invisible, pink unicorn running around outside and I guarantee you, you won’t be able to ‘prove’ that’s not the case – but that doesn’t make it a reasonable thing to believe!

Thirdly, conspiracy theories tend to over-simplify complicated situations into easy-to-digest narratives. Why ponder the social and economic climates that lead to any particular class voting in a certain way at a general election, when you can instead just say ‘the illuminati did it.’ Why read through hefty scholarly articles on the historical Jesus to get a sense of what can or cannot be attributed to him when you can simply believe it as written or deny it as myth altogether. This broad kind of simplification is lazy and uninformed. It would be remiss of me (and rather hypocritical) to over-simplify why people believe in conspiracy theories, but one can’t help but feel that it attracts a certain kind of person who can’t make much sense of the world without the theories. In fact, one suspects for some people a crazy, purposeless world is so frightening that believing in an evil world order pulling the strings is more comforting. Believing that companies deliberately make us ill may be easier to accept than the fact that disease will always exist and affect us.

In fact, the simplification just leads to a complete lack of nuance. For example, I myself am very suspicious of the way some pharmaceutical companies are run and question just how much money determines how long we’ll live. Equally, I find myself rather unsettled by the current US Administration’s relationship with Russia. The world isn’t all sunshine and roses – money talks, power corrupts and it’s vital that we acknowledge that. However, we must do this in a reasonable, nuanced and mature way. Questioning how much money is a determining factor in our health quality is quite different from suggesting Big Pharma is purposefully giving us cancer. The latter is an unsupported gross oversimplification but, perhaps, an easier narrative to get our heads around.

Paradoxically, as well as over-simplifying, some conspiracy theories actually over-complicate issues – they provide an explanation for something that already has one. For example, one looks at the Brexit chaos of last year and it’s pretty clear what happened. A Conservative government, to ease party tensions, ran a referendum which everyone assumed they would win, then turned into a shock result which the politicians weren’t prepared for. That’s a pretty easy and obvious explanation for the momentarily destabilising events that followed the vote. However, if you believe in the Illuminati, you must now provide a further explanation as to why this series of events took place as they did – a series of events that already has an explanation now needs another! And, as most of us know, a rational conclusion would be to invoke Occam’s Razor and shave away the unnecessary explanation altogether. (Quick side note on the Illuminati – when conspiracy theorists constantly point to lyrics and symbols in music videos as ‘signs of the Illuminati’, I can’t help but imagine the strange circumstances of landing a job in the Illuminati PR department where your job is to get the message out there…but don’t be noticed. That’s one hell of a brief, right?!)

Conspiracy theories can also be extremely dangerous. An obvious example would be failing to get your child immunised against a life-threatening disease, but there are less obvious examples too. For instance, if you believe that the President of the United States is just a puppet for some grand shadowy organisation, then that may well make you apathetic to voting. After all, what does it matter, they have the same agenda anyway. However, as we have recently had the misfortune of finding out, electing the wrong President can have huge ramifications for people’s lives and indeed the preservation of the planet for future generations.

Finally, conspiracy theories, from my anecdotal experience, seem to foster a strange arrogance in its followers. I guess it’s a fundamental problem of any belief system which sees itself as significantly more ‘enlightened’ than the dumb masses, but it really manifests itself with conspiracy theorists. People, many of whom may have had no further education at all, keep bemoaning the ‘blind sheeple’. In fact one gets the sense that this too is part of the appeal of conspiracy theories, it’s rather soothing to one’s ego to think you’re in a significantly more informed place than the rest of the world (it’s essentially like getting stuck in a teenage mentality forever).

It also can create a strange mindset whereby a conspiracy theorist starts believing conspiracy theories simply because they are conspiracy theories. At that point you know that all reason is out of the window and the person has succumbed to an almost religious-unquestioning (all, ironically, in the spirit of so called ‘free-thought’.)

Conspiracy theories are also dangerous because they can often be deceptively compelling. In fact, Stephen Law describes conspiracy theories as an ‘intellectual black hole’, ideas that once you believe, are very hard to shake off. And let’s be honest, if you watch hours of YouTube videos propagating this or that conspiracy theory, it’s likely to eventually become convincing, assuming you don’t have the relevant knowledge to question the claims. A good example is a conspiracy video called ‘Zeitgeist’ which suggests, among other things, that Jesus was a myth. If you watch the video completely uninformed on the study of the Historical Jesus, it’s likely to be very compelling. There’s a clear narrative, patterns are shown and before you know it, you’re sucked it. In this particular instance, however, I did my dissertation on the Historical Jesus and was, thankfully, informed enough on this issue to realise that a lot of Zeitgeit’s claims aren’t just wrong, they’re positively ludicrous.

But it does raise an interesting question; how does one seek to determine truth in this confusing world? Learning what sources to trust is a fundamental rite of passage if you want to understand the world at all. Ideally we would all become experts on every issue but due to the lack of time and, perhaps, capability, that’s off the table. So, instead, we are forced to trust the word of others on most issues we believe, and we’re all acutely aware that this is not a foolproof system. After all, what if Galileo had trusted the consensus of his time?

There is no easy answer I can think of, but I will say this – Galileo thought critically and used evidence to challenge the prevailing views of his day. He was using reason and applying the scientific method to change minds. This attitude to me seems much more in spirit with the scientists and experts of our day, than of conspiracy theories. We have to ask ourselves this question: Are we to become so cynical and shaded that we disregard all expert opinion under the belief that everyone is coerced and has an agenda, so our only refuge for information is unqualified internet bloggers? Or can we maturely do our best to humbly accept the expert advice of those we have no reason to distrust, always with a healthy dose of critical thinking, to come to a nuanced and informed view of the world? I know which I’d prefer.

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